Book Review: Sleeping on Horseback, by Frances Samuel

cv_sleeping_on_horsebackAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

This is Frances Samuel’s first collection, slightly notable for the fact that Samuel finished the IIML MA programme in 2003. It seems to have been a book a long time coming. The book itself gets a back cover blurb exhorting the richness and strangeness of its poems describing the locales as exotic elsewheres. I don’t agree with this. The theme of exotic elsewheres is definitely strong in the book. But this is a consistent trend in New Zealand and even English language colonialist poetry where other cultures are plundered as scenes, settings and flavour for poems. This isn’t very new or exciting. Samuel continues the trend of quiet poems with a perspective of emotional distance, something I would classify as pretty much de rigueur for poetry being published by many publishers in New Zealand today.

There’s a strong theme of whiteness in the book. White light is mentioned on more than one occasion and there are people wearing white gloves, white bread, white pigeon shit on a white night. And snow, a lot of snow. It’s hard to say whether all this whiteness is just unconscious symbolism or an attempt to address the ubiquity of whiteness and its default position and setting of normality. I am siding on unconscious symbolism because there is very little obvious critique. The poems journey through Latvia and Japan, we have Tolstoy and Po Chu-I, Hebrew words and Pākehā ancestry listed as strings of nationalities. Samuel is a museum exhibitions writer and I suspect this has given me a bias towards wanting the book to be complex and analytical of its own obsessions and stealing.

The poetry itself has a voice that’s a bit different than other writers in New Zealand at present. It’s at times a little sing-song. There’s repetition, though not too much. The poems are overall what I would describe as sweet. One poem talks about Japanese funeral rites and ancestors. It is describing something being looked at rather than experienced, which is a key theme in the book I think. The poem I like the most is titled Duckshooting. It is strange in its own way without really needing to cherry pick strangeness from other cultures. There’s a seventh budgie, which is compelling, and the last line finishes the poem perfectly. A lot of the poems have a certain fairytale feeling to them. Some of them seem to be pitched at children to my eyes and others have elements of a dreaminess that pervades the whole book.

The collection holds together well and progresses through its sections in a way that makes sense and flows. And it is well written. I think I would like a little more strangeness in this collection that’s not about how other cultures are different. It’s a time honoured tradition and one I’m keen to see the back of, especially in a book that is sold on its back cover with promises of its strangeness and richness.

Reviewed by Emma Barnes

Sleeping on Horseback
by Frances Samuel
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739728

Book Review: The Art of Excavation, by Leilani Tamu

cv_the_art_of_excavationAvailable in bookstores nationwide. 

Leilani Tamu’s first book, The Art of Excavation, is a little unusual in that it comes with substantial notes and a glossary of terms. Glossaries aren’t so unusual, but combined with the statement from the author and the breakdowns of many of the poems the reader has an easy in to the collection. I don’t usually enjoy it when authors explain poems or collections to me but I did enjoy this and I can definitely see the benefit for readers who may be unfamiliar with poetry or not yet sold on the concept.

Speaking about a collection’s accessibility is often used to compliment poetry that seems simple or is otherwise not very challenging to the reader. Tamu herself uses the term accessibility but I think that rather than being poetry that is boring or simple she’s working very consciously to make the themes and concerns of the book available to all readers who might pick up the book.

The book’s main concern is the Pacific and the history and future of it. It’s refreshing to read a collection dealing directly with colonisation and its impacts because if often feels like art in New Zealand can gloss directly over the surface. My only slight regret here is that it is often not Pākehā writers who take on those themes but instead writers who directly experience colonisation each day because they don’t have the luxury of thinking it was an historical event. By writing about the past and the future together Tamu is challenging the common narrative that colonisation is over and done with. This may be obvious to some readers but to me is one of the centrally important ideas the collection presents.

Tamu writes in an open and lyric style that mixes many different styles of language and register. The moments I was most pleased by were the ones where the register switched from high to low or back again. It doesn’t feel like a trick but an acknowledgement of the complexity of the topics being dealt with and for me was a good jolt. This register switching is an acknowledgement of the kind of lived experience of contemporary culture, alongside the “high” historical or literary perspective. There are some really lovely lines in the collection and sometimes they even rhyme which I rarely found pat. A particular favourite for me was this phrase, best read aloud:

‘you tear open ancient fissures
and cast aside superficial stitches’

There are moments of dark humour, sections that focus on history and obviously many political aspects. Tamu writes to her ancestors and her children. Sometimes it seems like she’s writing to herself or to other versions of herself. I did at times want Tamu to really dig in more deeply to some of the themes and really get going but I hope that her second collection will add to the work she has started in this collection.

Reviewed by Emma Barnes

The Art of Excavation
by Leilani Tamu
Published by Anahera Press
ISBN 9780473290047

Getting creative with Cats and Spaghetti Press

cats_and_spaghetti_logoI asked three new publishers five questions, in an effort to understand why you would decide to start anew in the current publishing environment (see feature article in The Read from yesterday.)  These are the answers from Emma Barnes and Pip Adam, who founded Cats and Spaghetti Press. Here are the answers from Paper Road Press, and we will post Mākaro Press’ answers on Monday.

1. Why did you decide to create your own publishing company?
Pip and I spent a lot of time talking about things we’d like to see getting published. Books aren’t always the easiest format to get creative with and the vagaries of publishing in this climate mean that what gets published can sometimes end up being larger manuscripts that are easier to make into books. We really liked the idea of doing weird things or little things or things that might not otherwise see the light of day.

2. What are you hoping to achieve in your publishing ventures?
We’re not in it to make money. But who is with poetry and short fiction! Even fiction! We are just wanting to make room for the unusual. I think that sums us up best.

3. How are you selecting your titles? Have you got a MS pile yet?
I came across Magnolia’s work and thought it was a natural fit for us and Pip agreed! So that was great. We’re going looking. If you’re only accepting submissions, you are often bound by that in that maybe you don’t know what you’re missing! I want to go out and find diverse work, both from different backgrounds and work that will challenge us to produce.
4. How are you going with distribution? Is there anything you would like to see booksellers doing?
A few weeks ago, Cats and Spaghetti launched its first publication − Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s long poem Pen Pal. It was not a conventional publication and we didn’t want to distribute it in a conventional way. We decided to give all the copies of the first edition − which was a beautiful object − away for free. We organised an event, several writers read work which reflected some of the themes of Pen Pal (Magnolia gave them a brief to think witch-craft and the occult), then we let people know through social media that this would be the only chance to get a copy of the first edition of Pen Pal. In this way, we gifted the publication back to the poetry writing/reading community. We also tied the publication to the event, so it was sort of a record of the event for people who came and heard and read. We wanted people to read Magnolia’s work and we’re not totally sure ‘sales’ equal readers as unproblematically as we assume. By distributing Pen Pal the way we did (at the launch event), people paid for it through effort and participation and love and joy and support of the writer and the event, which we hope means that their relationship with Pen Pal will be different to what it might have been if they had paid money for it.

I hope that maybe when they pick it up or read it or see it in their bookshelf they’ll remember the night and the readings and the people they talked to and that will kind of commit them or tie them to the community around them. We were lucky to find a writer who shared our kaupapa.

As you can see, this makes it tricky to think about how we might work with booksellers, but I do think booksellers are an important part of the community that I’m talking about. I’m really interested in how a bookseller might fit with a gift economy kind of project.

5. I would imagine with a small list, you are easily adaptable for new realities. How are you dealing with future technologies for distributing/publicising your books?
I feel really lucky because neither Emma, Magnolia or I had money as a base criteria for publication. This is a ridiculously privileged position to be in, but I think that this, more than anything gives us scope for experimentation in distribution and publication. We were, and I imagine will be, mainly working in a self-funded model. This has two advantages, one of them is obvious − we please ourselves − but the other advantage is that we need to be creative and I think that is also very good. For instance, with Pen Pal, we had enough money for a small run of beautiful things, so we needed to find an exciting way of getting this small run into hands that would love it like we did. Our next project is a collection of a lot of writers’ work which has been rejected from other publications, and yeah I find it quite exciting not to have to think of it as a ‘literary journal’ as such or an ‘anthology’, it feels like there is so much room for it to become.

– Booksellers NZ

Book Review: Life and Customs, by Bernadette Hall

This publication is available in bookstores today.

Life and Customs by Bernadette Hall may be my favourite cv_life_and_customscollection of her work yet. Other reviewers have talked about ‘her own lightness of being and her linguistic felicity…’ David Eggleton, (The Listener, February 19-25, 2005, vol. 3380). In this collection those things are still present and are also balanced by a quiet humour, which appears throughout the book. This collection is exceptional in my mind for the first ever use of Second Life in a poem (or anything really!) that doesn’t come off sounding ridiculous. That may be damming with faint praise to many, but I was so astounded when it occurred that I put the book down and laughed about it.

Hall is obviously an accomplished poet. pp_bernadette_hallWe all know this. The first line that grabbed me in the collection was from The view from the lookout: ‘Where the black skirts of mamaku / tick like the clicky ‘beetles’ / we used to play with’.  Just say that out loud to yourself a few times: tick like the clicky beetles. The whole book is filled with stories and language that propel the reader through the collection. I almost read it in one entire sitting. There are political poems, feminist poems and poems where the narrative voice is unstable and confused and trying to decipher the unfamiliar world surrounding them. Millennia of silence and no rain is a fantastic tumble that ends, for lack of a better word, perfectly. If I have to criticise something it would be the use of ‘katabatic winds’ twice within six pages. It didn’t work for me. But that’s small criticism indeed. We travel from Amberley to Antarctica and those are just the As.

Not all of the poems grabbed me. There were some I skipped past others I lingered over and re-read. I like to think of poetry collections like albums. Sometimes it takes a few listens to appreciate the quieter or more complex tracks. And sometimes that simple track you skipped past 10 times becomes your favourite. So I have no doubt that this collection would bear considerable re-reading. Sul: a ballet that awaits performance is the hinge that other two sections of the book balance on. It seems both autobiography and faerie tale. It is full of little quirks and fantastic lines such as: ‘… whether there is indeed a point at which the universe itself demands some sort of justice,’ and ‘just because it happened such a long time ago, there’s no need to start making things up.’ There’s a lot to like in this collection. I’m hoping to catch Bernadette Hall reading some of these poems.

Reviewed by Emma Barnes

Life and Customs
by Bernadette Hall
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739001